Are Christian converts seeking asylum getting a raw deal?
Home affairs correspondent, BBC news website
Can you reel off the Ten Commandments?
If someone is asking the UK for protection as a refugee because they’ve converted to Christianity, should they know the answer?
The all-party parliamentary group on international religious freedom says asylum claims from converts to Christianity are being dealt with unfairly precisely because of questions like these.
It says that too often officials are asking about Bible trivia, rather than probing what someone really believes.
And this “lack of understanding of religion and belief” is leading to the wrong people being rejected – meaning they could be forced out when they have genuinely been persecuted.
Mohammed, an Iranian asylum seeker convert, is fighting to stay in the UK. His claim was rejected following his asylum interview.
“One question they asked me was very strange – what colour was the cover of the Bible,” he says. “I knew there were different colours. The one I had was red. They asked me questions I was not able to answer – for example, what are the Ten Commandments. I could not name them all from memory.”
When someone turns up for an asylum interview, the assessors have to decide whether what they’re told adds up to a reasonably likely account. The caseworker doesn’t have to be sure of every detail and in the case of religious claimants, the guidance says they’re not required to ask anything other than “basic knowledge questions”.
But why shouldn’t the Home Office, which runs the asylum system, reasonably expect claimants to know basic facts from the Bible?
“The problem with those questions is that if you are not genuine you can learn the answers, and if you are genuine, you may not know the answers,” says Baroness Berridge, who heads the parliamentary group behind the report.
“When the system did move on to ask about the lived reality of people’s faith, we then found that caseworkers, who are making decisions which can be life or death for people, were not properly supported and trained properly.”
There are no official figures on asylum claims on religious grounds but anecdotal evidence suggests the vast majority are probably former Muslims who have turned to Christianity.
Another large group of claimants are members of the Ahmadi Muslim sect who are persecuted in Pakistan.
Rev Mark Miller, who has a large congregation of Iranian converts in Stockton-on-Tees, has advised the Home Office on how to handle such claims. Many of his congregation will have first experienced the faith in secret meetings in private homes.
“The asylum assessors have a real challenge on their hands,” he says. “If you’ve come to faith in an underground house church, where you’ve been able to borrow a New Testament for a week and have encountered the risen Lord Jesus, you’re not going to know when the date of Pentecost is.
“They should be trying to understand the difference between head knowledge and heart knowledge,” he says.
“They should be asking questions that help them to understand why someone has left behind the faith of their upbringing and the faith of their family.”
But isn’t it still possible to play the system? Can’t anyone just pretend to have found God?
Mohammed in Yorkshire, like others, was baptised in Greece on his way to Britain. Recent mass conversions in Germany, have fuelled fears that it’s just a big scam.
Wilson Chowdhry of the British Pakistani Christian Association says he’s had occasional suspicions of bogus converts – people who attend services until they’ve convinced the Home Office they’re genuine.
But he says that they are a rare sight for two reasons: there are so few converts in the first place and those who do switch can face awful prejudice in their own communities.
“If you take Pakistani Christians, they’re among the most severely persecuted for apostasy [the act of abandoning Islam]. There are other ways of trying to stay in the UK – you would not choose to be persecuted in your own community here, as well as at home.
“I believe that there are still some suspicions [in the global church] about whether someone has converted genuinely – and when many do convert they receive little support.”
The Home Office is studying the parliamentary group’s report. It hasn’t formally commented yet other than to underline that the guidance is regularly reviewed to take into account the views of religious groups.
It has no plans at present to record figures for asylum applications by converts because many claims rely on a combination of complex or overlapping factors.
As for Mohammed, if he’s asked again what makes a Christian, what will he tell officials?
“To know whether someone is a real believer or not, you have to look at the fruit in their lives,” he says. “The fruit is love and humility… when people come here wounded and in fear and trembling, what they most need is to receive love.”